For gymnastics, competition may have stopped during the coronavirus pandemic, but the news hasn’t.
An Olympic champion’s coach was banned eight years for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. A decision on an age minimum for the Tokyo Games in 2021 caused a stir among the U.S.’ top female gymnasts. Another American qualified for the Tokyo Olympics last month, even while no meets were happening.
Meanwhile, the most common concern voiced to USA Gymnastics by athletes and coaches is how and when to return to training in a normal environment.
“It’s hard to say specifically because our gyms are spread out all across the country, so there’s a big variety in the different situations that every gym is in,” USA Gymnastics Chief Programs Officer Stefanie Korepin said in a phone interview earlier this month. “So we’re encouraging them to follow their local health authorities and the local government regulations about when they can open and when they can return to play.”
Korepin noted USA Gymnastics’ coronavirus resource page on its website. And an athlete health and wellness council that is working with its medical team and coaches to develop guidelines to reintegrate athletes into the gym.
Some athletes have still been able to train on gymnastics equipment. At least one female Olympic hopeful was still training on some days at her normal gym as of early-to-mid April. Yul Moldauer, the 2017 U.S. men’s all-around champion, had a pommel horse set up in his garage. Simone Biles returned to her gym on Monday, according to her social media, as Texas reopens.
Korepin said USA Gymnastics had “no solid data” on the amount of apparatus training national team athletes have had.
“Word of mouth, I think very few athletes, there are a handful, but very few are actually in a gym training,” Korepin said before some states began reopening earlier this month, “and I think a slightly larger percentage, but still not that many, have equipment. But the equipment they have in their home is not full gymnastics equipment.”
Unlike in swimming and track and field, no top-level competitions are scheduled, even tentatively, for later this year. Premier events in the U.S. will not be held before 2021. Internationally, World Cup meets originally scheduled for this spring were postponed indefinitely or canceled.
USA Gymnastics may hold a re-ranking-type event in artistic gymnastics in early 2021. The next top-level women’s meet, the U.S. Classic, an annual tune-up event for nationals, will be May 22, 2021.
Without recent competitions, U.S. officials faced other matters.
Most recently, Maggie Haney, who coached Laurie Hernandez to gold and silver medals at the Rio Olympics, was banned eight years by an independent hearing panel for verbal and emotional abuse of athletes. Hernandez later went public, reportedly testifying against Haney and saying she developed eating disorders and depression as a result of the coach’s actions. Haney provided her first statement to NBC for the TODAY Show on Monday.
Haney’s ban was handed down more than three years after the first complaint against her. USA Gymnastics said in a statement that the Safe Sport investigation and resolution process must be faster. It noted an increase in Safe Sport department personnel, from one to eight people over the last few years, and a commitment to add even more resources.
“We vow to do better – to respond more empathically, to resolve complaints more efficiently, and to be more vigilant,” USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said in a statement. “We will keep improving this process until our athletes and our community can trust it. And we will keep working with our community to improve the culture within our sport, so that abuse like this is no longer tolerated.”
Two significant decisions related to the Tokyo Olympics were made last month.
Jade Carey became the first U.S. gymnast to clinch an Olympic spot when the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) ruled to count qualifying results as final results in an international competition in March that was halted midway through due to the coronavirus (Carey was all but certain to qualify even before that March meet).
In previous Olympics, all of the U.S. gymnasts were determined at or after the Olympic Trials. But Carey qualified a spot for herself via a new route instituted for this Olympic cycle, combining results over a series of meets the last two years.
Carey is eligible to compete in all individual events in Tokyo, but not the team event. However, Carey could decline the individual spot that she earned and try to make the U.S. team of four by competing at nationals and trials next year. If she does that, it’s possible the U.S. will lose that individual spot to another nation and send one fewer gymnast to the Olympics overall.
“That choice is completely up to Jade, and we will fully support her whatever she decides to do,” Korepin said.
With the Olympics moved to 2021, the FIG is allowing athletes who would have been one year too young for a 2020 Olympics to be eligible for the Tokyo Games next year. A group of U.S. gymnasts who turn 16 in 2021 can now bid for the Olympics, three years earlier than they originally planned. Three members of the 2019 U.S. women’s team at last year’s world championships disagreed with the decision.
USA Gymnastics will give those younger gymnasts an opportunity to make the Olympic team. Its bylaws require it to.
“The Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of our athletes, and they peak at a specific time,” Korepin said. “And to have that pool of athletes that they have to compete against for the Olympics changed can be really difficult. But, on the other hand, there are really incredible young athletes who now have an opportunity that they didn’t have before, so we’re excited for them. It’s definitely a mixed bag of emotions.”
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